By James Wallace, Director of Music
“For which century are you educating your students?”
So began a faculty workshop with guest lecturer Charles Fadel, co-author of 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times back in December. According to Fadel, economists now commonly say that due to advances in technology, most of the jobs current high school students will hold 15 years from now do not yet exist. How does a school prepare its students for a workplace that hasn’t yet come into existence?
Everyone agrees that the rate at which our world is changing is accelerating exponentially. Since “Moore’s Law” was coined in the 1970s, it has proven true that the number of microprocessors has doubled roughly every two years. My first Apple laptop ran at 16 MHz and had a 20 meg hard drive. Yes, that’s megs, not gigs. And, I thought it was a miracle. How would I fill all that space? The possibilities seemed endless.
We have embarked on an intentional course of rapid social change through our move toward the virtual world made possible by technology. The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up” has taken on a completely different meaning than it had seventy-five years ago when even children knew most of the possible answers. The future is more uncertain, true. And this is without even considering the scenario in which global warming lands us all in an apocalyptic, life or death struggle for survival. When the zombies come, aim for the brain!
Assuming that we find some sustainable way for our civilization to continue, institutions and companies in our tech-based future will have to learn to respond in real-time to consumer preferences.
Rapid-response teamwork and collaborative design are replacing the old “solitary inventor” model. With the exception of the stock market trading floor, itself an obsolete business model soon to be replaced by supercomputers, head-to-head competition is now generally seen as detrimental to company functioning. Instead, CEOs are crying out for creative, “out-of-the-box” thinkers, collaborative designers, “hive brain” types, people who can “connect the dots” of human existence to see possibilities the future may hold. In a world of exponentially expanding technology and rapid change, creative innovation is king.
The days when the cigar-puffing company president sat behind his giant desk and issued edicts to the little people in his empire below are fading rapidly. It’s more likely that Walmart now tells the company president what his profit margin will be, not the other way around. The “leadership” style exemplified by the whacky whims of an autocratic Trump type are seen as a corporate liability in today’s workplace, where strategy is more likely driven by team-building, creative innovation, collaboration and even crowdsourcing than one man’s Manhattan-sized ego. Mr. Trump, you’re fired!
Former Apple chief Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
If broader experience leads to better outcomes in the workplace, should we be educating to that end? Clearly, the SM 2020 initiatives take our school a step in that direction. There is nothing like immersing oneself in an unfamiliar culture, for example, to broaden one’s experience. But short of getting on a plane, are we taking advantage of every possibility to broaden our experience here at St. Mark’s?
People of my generation have turned the college admission process into a nightmare of bureaucracy and standardized testing for the current generation. We have monetized student anxiety and branded it “rigor”. Did you know the College Board takes in nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars annually? Many people call it a “NINO”, that is, “non-profit in name only”. Considering the vested interests of highly paid College Board employees and the hype created by magazines like U.S. News and World Report that rank colleges, it’s easy to understand why students may feel less like individual human beings than cogs in some vast and incomprehensible machine that grinds on with a single purpose: to get them into a “good” college. Good for whom?
The St. Mark’s mission statement doesn’t even mention college, but emphasizes “lives of leadership and service”. If you make the conscious decision to live such a life, to care about things other than yourself, then you need to look to the ideals that make the world a better place: putting others’ needs before one’s own, living in community, sharing, working together, creating opportunities for others, treating all people with respect and dignity. The truth is, if a person hasn’t embraced these ideals during high school, the chances he or she will develop these mindsets later in life are slim. As William Julius Wilson said, “The person who scored well on an SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman. These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.”
But how will we save the planet if we won’t even carry our own cups back to the dining hall? It is precisely the combination of leadership and service that allows us to open ourselves up to experiences of other people and cultures and learn from them in a meaningful way. It’s this breadth of experience that will open our minds to solve the complex problems we face. A 21st-century school can’t afford to be a “bubble”.
Yet in a time of social change and uncertainty, when the boundaries between the “real” and the “virtual” are blurring, it is tempting to cling to things that appear to be concrete, unchanging, even as we embrace the latest and newest. We often see this dichotomy played out here at school. Students want to believe that the school should not change, that the old ways and traditions will serve them as they have the previous seven generations. At the same time, students are frustrated when they feel judged by teachers and administrators because they themselves are changing, leaving their elders behind in ways more profound than in past generational shifts. As Riona Reeves, St. Mark’s Class of 2014, expressed so passionately in these excerpts from her poem, Millennials:
You tell us that we are lacking something,
Some intangible quality that made the good ole days great
That we aren’t as strong as you were
What with the internet and cellular devices
That we’ve had it easy
Let me tell you something about our generation
We have traded blows on a playground
For the harsh sucker punch of a single word
In the comments section of a YouTube video
Words that are becoming rarer each day,
Because by now we’ve realized that the only way to survive
Is to hold each other up in the floodwaters
Rather than fighting for who gets to float on their own
We have developed our own language
In order to ease communication
We have consolidated our lives
Onto a device you can barely operate
We have developed a network of people
we have never had to meet
In order to declare them our friends
But my friends,
The ones you decided didn’t count because they were online
Think I’m worth more than any of the products you are trying to sell
So let me check twitter and Facebook,
Let me let the world know that I exist
But we have more grit
Then you ever knew strength could be
Because we learned to take our hearts off our sleeves
And present them to every person we meet
This is evolution,
This is Gen-Z
And we are here
We are proud
And we are free
From your sins
Reading this passionate defense of a break with the past, it’s hard to imagine students who feel represented by these sentiments also protesting or even mocking the school’s attempts to modernize itself or to make even minor changes in perceived “traditions”. “Respect me for changing”, they insist, “but don’t you dare change anything!” This is the paradoxical nature of the confusing times in which current students live.
And in this whirlwind of simultaneous loyalties to past and future, students still have to imagine a personal future for themselves. What will get me the skills I’ll need to succeed in a yet-unimagined future? What is “real”, unchanging, reliable, concrete? SAT scores seem concrete – the College Board certainly wants us to think so. College rankings seem concrete. But are they, really? Did you know that one of the reasons the College Board is quietly getting rid of the SAT essay is that studies determined that there was a direct correlation between length of essay and higher score? Length, not quality. The precise, elegantly concise writing that makes for a killer essay is a disadvantage on the SAT. Higher scores in general also correlate with the number of practice tests a student has taken, which correlates directly with the amount of test preparation a student can afford. Students from wealthier backgrounds may do better because they can afford more assisted preparation for the test or their schools may provide it, and they have the time to prepare for it. Rather than taking the test several times or attending costly private tutoring, less wealthy students might have to spend their time working a part-time job to help support their families. As a result, they may score lower, even though they are “smarter” than many who score higher. By treating SAT scores as authentic, colleges automatically discriminate against students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and socio-economic background isn’t the only such discriminatory class. In this way colleges that make no attempt to ameliorate these inequities participate indirectly in a system that makes access to higher education even more difficult for those who might benefit from it the most, and more easily accessible to the most privileged. This is hardly the sort of condition one would expect to be embraced by a generation that believes they, “hold each other up in the floodwaters Rather than fighting for who gets to float on their own”.
And what about ranking colleges themselves? This a particularly noxious part of today’s college admissions process. Don’t misunderstand: some colleges are better than others at one thing or another, and I’m not saying that college rankings are incorrect in any particular detail. It’s just that there is absolutely no assurance whatsoever that going to “good” college #27 will give you a bigger boost in life than “good” college #63, unless you hope to work in the snobbiest of snobby atmospheres, say, a Boston law firm made up of Harvard grads who only hire other Harvard grads. If that’s your goal (eww…), you’d better go to Harvard. But I can say from personal experience, how happy one is with the other students and atmosphere at college and what one does while a student there will have a much greater effect on one’s future than a silly magazine ranking that, in my opinion, should be taken about as seriously as “find a better boyfriend” advice in Seventeen. Do you even know what the criteria for a US News and World Report “best college” ranking are? Do those criteria have anything to do with your own values, life dreams or aspirations?
I started my undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin. In those days things were different: I had taken the ACT once; I applied in July and started in September, yes, two months between application and matriculation. The school had 39,000 students. In my second year I decided that the atmosphere was toxic for me. On a trusted teacher’s recommendation, I transferred to a college I had never heard of, Pacific Lutheran University, with a student body less than one-tenth the size of UW. I was ecstatically happy, accomplished a great deal, found my “tribe” and my passions, and graduated with a double major, double minor. Had I been influenced by today’s US News rankings (PLU is ranked 15th in the Western division of regional colleges) I might not have gone because it wasn’t a “good” school. Luckily, their marketing madmen hadn’t yet dreamt up that sales booster, because I also had the opportunity to transfer to Oberlin (#25 in the National liberal arts rankings). I visited both schools; Oberlin impressed me, but I flew to Tacoma, Washington, visited PLU, and in one weekend landed a scholarship and a job as organist in the University Congregation. It was the perfect school for me, and I credit my later professional successes and personal happiness to the move I made from a “top-rated” large university to a middle-of-the-pack small school I’d never even heard of before.
Is it possible for a “good” school to be the “wrong” school? It is heartbreaking to look behind the scenes at the tragedy reflected in college suicide rates. Most of the students who end their own lives during college are white males, while black female students have the lowest suicide rate. Not what you expected? One might explain this by observing that in American society, white males still hold the most privileged position. These students may get to college and find themselves on a level playing field for the first time and feel that they don’t measure up or their lives no longer make sense. On the other hand, in American society black women are still very likely to have encountered all sorts of discrimination by the time they get to college, a depressing truth this long after Dr. King showed us a different way. Perhaps overcoming the obstacles others continually put in their way gives these young women an added resilience and determination. Or perhaps they feel the degree is not just about them, but about others who are depending on them. Whatever the reasons, it is still true that most of these tragedies take place at “good” colleges. Again, I ask the question, good for whom?
If the reliability of standardized testing and the applicability of college rankings is questionable, how do we choose a wise path for ourselves in a world where nearly everything around us is fake? “Now with real chicken flavor” means that the Chikken™ contains no chicken. Reality TV is not real. Surrounded by the artificial, we still hunger for truth, but it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.
Based on my experience with institutions of higher learning (double bachelors, masters, graduate fellowship, advanced studies degree, five different institutions – not bragging, I just really like school…) I will humbly dare to offer this advice to current students: think about how you want to spend your precious, short time on this earth. What sort of person do you hope to be? What do you hope to learn? What do you hope to accomplish? How might your dreams be reflected in possible career paths? Forget about rankings. Make a list of ALL the schools (whether they’re highly ranked or not) that offer programs in the areas in which you may have interest, even if those interests are not yet fully developed. Then make a second list: what makes you happy? Mountains? Beach? Forests? Desert? Farmland? Big city bustle? The charm of a small town? If living in a concrete jungle depresses you, by all means look at colleges in small towns. If the very thought of having cows within a mile of your campus makes you want to wash your hands, look in the city. Think about environments in which you feel happy and relaxed, and those in which you feel stressed. Also think about who makes you happy. Stereotypes can be useful here. Do you like hanging out with jocks? techies? nerds? artists? bookworms? hipsters? Pay attention to the feel of the students you meet on college visits and trust your gut. College is stressful enough without intentionally placing yourself in an environment that doesn’t agree with your temperament. After you do all this, cross-reference your program list with your environment list. You may be surprised by what you see. If there are colleges on the list you’ve never heard of, don’t scratch them off – research them, visit them if you can. Decide for yourself, don’t let a magazine gimmick bully you into choosing a school for superficial reasons. Don’t get me wrong, your top-ranked, first choice may be a great school, but it may not be great for you.
Phew! You’ve made it to the perfect college for you. Are you prepared to embrace the breadth of experience you find there, to use that experience to become a creative innovator? Did you learn how to do that in high school?
There are many wonderful things about a boarding school like St. Mark’s, but let’s be honest: most days also hold a series of little slights that gradually desensitize us to those around us. We’re over-scheduled yet constantly asked to “be and do our best”, to “play through the pain”, to not react, to get along with a stranger in a tiny space, to feel nothing when people are cruel for no better reason than to make themselves feel better. We turn inward in order to avoid the appearance of vulnerability. The last thing we want to be is the weak little calf at the back of the herd, easy pickings. This defensive posture can lead to a gradual hardening of the personality and flattening of affect that may prevent us from being hurt by the little cruelties of life, but also hinders our openness to the experience of others. We risk coming to see ourselves as “right” and everybody else as “wrong”. It’s hard to find the truth if you are only willing to look inside yourself.
Carmelita Hinton, founder of The Putney School and a devotee of the progressive philosophy of John Dewey in the early 20th century, wrote that students should “not work for grades, badges or honors, but to discover the truth”. She wanted her school to be “a more real, less self-centered affair”. By this she affirmed her belief that teenagers were actual people, capable of the full range of human emotion and experience, that one didn’t have to wait till college or beyond to have “personhood”. She didn’t want her students to focus only on “my grades”, “my time”, “my SAT scores”, “my team rank”. She wanted her students to embrace the highest ideals of humanity rather than focus solely on themselves, as she knew that embracing a self-centered worldview during the formative teenage years was a difficult choice to reverse later in life.
If breadth of experience and an other-focused worldview are possible in a prep school environment where so many pressures from so many directions encourage us to focus only on ourselves, how do we begin? Where do we look for life-changing experiences here and now, within our little bubble? How do we see our St. Mark’s years as real life, rather than some sort of waiting room for the real life to come? Like most of the important things in life, it’s simple, though not necessarily easy: try something new; develop your whole brain, look outside yourself.
Try something new.
Fadel asked us, “For which century are we educating our students.” I would counter that he has asked the wrong question, and that it belies his own generational viewpoint: with the accelerated social change we’re experiencing, a century is way too long a benchmark. We must learn how to tailor education to the present, to be flexible in real-time, even if that means allowing the venerable to change. Having absolute faith in tradition, “the system”, SATs, college rankings, or even colleges themselves, is a backward-looking stance. Believing that St. Mark’s doesn’t need to change, that it can live perpetually in a golden age of “correct” pedagogical practice from a previous century and still serve its students in the future, is counter to everything we know about what’s going on in the world today.
How do we achieve the freedom of mind that will enable us to embrace 21st-century skills? Broaden our concept of ourselves, try something new. If you are wicked good at math, read and write poetry. If you’re captain of the football team, take dance. If you’re a brilliant pianist, try to find the same passion in bubbling test tubes in the chemistry lab. If you’ve grown up in a privileged household, do some community service. Don’t let the stereotypes of the previous generation or a small-minded definition of “coolness” define you. In an age of instantly available information, broad experience is key to success.
Develop your whole brain.
In my first year as Director of Music at St. Mark’s, I’ve been struck by the paradoxical nature of the school’s relationship to the arts. Everybody says we have a good music program, for example, but almost nobody, students or adults, ever goes to a concert — how would they know? Yes, some of this has to do with our over-scheduled lives – we don’t do things that we don’t have to, no matter what they are. But I believe that there is also a remnant of a 19th-century view of the arts and their place in education at work here, too. Learning to incorporate the creative into everything we do is definitely a 21st-century skill.
A substantial part of American society has always devalued art as a frivolity, seen it as something well-heeled people “consume” for their entertainment. This mindset mystifies people in much of the rest of the modern world where art is more integrated into daily life. These people don’t see the American “arts free” personality type as “tough” – they see it as fragmented, unhealthy and insecure. During more sexist times, there was also a fear of art as a “feminizing” influence on males, and I believe this is still in play today at St. Mark’s. Art challenges us to react with our full selves, including the creative and emotional. If we have been trained not to have emotional responses except to a narrow list of approved “masculine” endeavors (a bad play in a football game, a loss in the stock market), then art may cause us to feel insecure. Many choose to strike a pose of boredom or dismissal rather than admit that societal pressures to conform to a masculine stereotype may have left them ill-equipped to be able to respond in this basic human way. This is not a zero-sum game, though. 21st-century thinking demands that we develop our full selves, not exclude parts for fear of bumping up against outmoded gender stereotypes.
Today, creativity – that ineffable quality best learned through the arts – is one of the most sought-after qualifications in hiring. But what is it? If we don’t develop the creative side of our brains, will we be left behind, unemployable? Steve Jobs also said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. Without creativity, there can be no innovation.
I’ve heard people at St. Mark’s talk about “getting their arts requirement out of the way in order to focus on courses important to college.” This is a very short-sighted view. If you talk to college professors, many bemoan the lack of creativity in their students. Of course this is a problem partly of their own making – colleges have created an admissions process that often removes a student’s demonstrable creativity from consideration in favor of things that are more easily quantifiable. It’s no wonder, then, that the students admitted are not viewed as “creative”, when the most creative students have been disadvantaged in the admissions process unless they are specifically applying for an arts program. And if one really listens to the people who are making a difference in the world today, they are all looking for educated people who have embraced the mindsets that the arts teach so well: learning to see the world around us, to open ourselves up to new experience, to let it affect us both intellectually and emotionally, to solve problems in new and creative ways, to become comfortable with creative chaos rather than limit ourselves to the certain.
John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, said in his TED talk:
“What can we learn from artists and designers about how to lead? In many senses, a regular leader loves to avoid mistakes. Someone who’s creative actually loves to learn from mistakes. A traditional leader is always wanting to be right, whereas a creative leader hopes to be right. And this frame is important today, in this complex, ambiguous space, and artists and designers have a lot to teach us, I believe.”
To extrapolate, from the vantage point of today’s rapidly changing workplace, the leadership style we once saw as strong now appears to have been based upon risk aversion or fear of failure. Creativity is replacing competition as the essence of what one needs for success.
So if creative people are in demand, how do you become one? Studying art literally changes your brain. It is not about the pottery you make or the music you compose, it’s about the person you become in the process.
Fran Smith, writing for Edutopia, wrote:
“Years of research show that [arts education] is closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.
Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. A 2005 report by The Rand Corporation about the visual arts argues that the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art experience do more than sweeten an individual’s life — according to the report, they ‘can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing…'”
The arts offer students a path by which to broaden their sense of themselves and the world, the very sort of broad experience Steve Jobs cited as crucial to innovative design. Art is not about making things or buying things others make. It is a process through which we become different people who see and interact with the world around us in a new, different and more open way. Art changes us if we are courageous enough to let it.
I know students who, if they had spent as much time practicing the guitar as they spent playing Guitar Hero™, could have been killer shredders for real. The easy access we have to all kinds of music has, in a way, devalued it even as it has made the whole world of music available to us. When we see music as “my music”, worth exactly $1.29, we are much further removed from the creative spark that spawned it in the first place. In Guitar Hero, the music sounds good whether we “play” it right or not, and this is the appeal, instant gratification.
What is the worst thing that could happen if you tried to sing in Chapel or paint a picture or make a ceramic pot or act in a one-act play or learn the guitar? Failure? Embarrassment? Finding out that it’s not as easy as it looks?
These little setbacks are nothing compared to the benefits of developing your creative brain. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a psychological sense. Applying yourself in the arts causes a physical, biological process that creates new neural pathways specifically designed to be sensitive to the creative. Intellect and creativity are both more powerful when developed together. It is commonly said that we only use ten percent of our brains. What sort of advantage might you have in life if you develop your creative brain as well as the intellectual and used twelve or fifteen percent?
Of course there are practical advantages, too. Maybe singing in St. Mark’s Chapel will give you just enough exposure to singing to make you feel confident singing a lullaby to your crying baby fifteen years from now. So try something new. By all means, get on that plane and experience the world, but don’t forget to open your own mind through creative encounters with art in the everyday here at home.
In a typical year there will be thirty times more qualified applicants for Harvard than available spaces. In that heady soup, SAT scores are meaningless. How will you distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack? Only about 1.7% of American undergraduates receive athletic scholarships, which means that most people reading this are in the other 98.3%. By all means, develop your body and learn the lessons athletics has to teach you, but how will you also demonstrate that you have developed your creativity?
Are you educating yourself for the future or, like a polar bear on an iceberg, clinging to outmoded ideas and hoping for the best? Are you developing your whole brain, including your creative mind? Are you forming an outward-focused worldview by embracing the diverse experiences of others?
Unlike all other species before us, we have the brain power to steer our own evolution. We don’t have to be dinosaurs!
James Wallace holds bachelor’s degrees in organ performance and church music from Pacific Lutheran University and the Master of Music degree from Westminster Choir College; he was a graduate music fellow at Northwestern University and holds the Advanced Studies Certificate in Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television from the University of Southern California. Mr. Wallace has 19 years of experience in the boarding school world, having worked at The Hill School, St. George’s School, and The Putney School prior to coming to St. Mark’s in the fall of 2013. He also held full- and part-time church music (organist/choirmaster) positions from 1974 until his retirement from church work in 2008.
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